It’s not enough to bring medical students to Fort Smith-based Arkansas Colleges of Health Education, according to ACHE President Kyle Parker, who spoke at the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce First Friday Breakfast Friday (Jan. 4). Fort Smith must make students fall in love with the city, region and state.
The leader of the bustling medical school campus at Chaffee Crossing also gave the Fort Smith business community a hint of what the next school phase may or may not be.
“You’ve got them for four years of med school. You’ve got them for three years of residency. That’s seven years. … We have seven years to convince (these students) to fall in love with it here,” Parker said. “The key is let them know that Arkansas is the greatest place to live.”
ACHE is a private, nonprofit institution located on 228 acres in Fort Smith’s Chaffee Crossing district. The Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine, its first college, welcomed an inaugural class of 150 osteopathic medical students in August 2017. Those students will graduate in May 2021. The second college — the Arkansas College of Health Sciences — is currently under construction and will be home to physical therapy, occupational therapy, and physician assistant programs. The campus is set up to be a quad with four post-baccalaureate schools.
Construction of the third school, which is yet to be determined, is expected to begin in 2021, Parker said. There have been discussions to open a veterinarian medicine school though all discussions are still in the “just talking ideas” stage, he added, noting one school ACOM would not have is a school of dentistry.
“It (dentists) is the number one biggest need for the state of Arkansas, but you cannot get dentists to stay in rural areas to practice dentistry. They all want to practice in bigger cities, so it does not fulfill the mission to keep students here,” Parker said.
When the college was started, the ACHE board of trustees said they only wanted to build the school if there was a spot for every single student to go into their residency because 80% of the time, new doctors stay in the vicinity of where they do their residency, Parker said.
“The key is keeping them here. You can graduate all the students you want to. If you don’t keep them here, that’s when you’re not solving the problem,” he said.
The school has contracts with every major hospital in the state of Arkansas and the Cherokee Nation and Choctaw Nation for residencies for ARCOM students, Parker said.
ARCOM is the highest applied-to medical school of all doctor of osteopathic medicine schools in the United States, Parker said Friday, with 5,000 applicants vying for 150 seats a year. Of those applicants, 800 are brought into Fort Smith for interviews before 150 are chosen for a class.
“These are the best and the brightest,” Parker said. “It’s not enough that they are extremely intelligent. We are not just looking at MCAT scores and GPAs. We look into the heart. We want the ones who want to help change the world.”
The 300 current students can be seen volunteering often in Fort Smith be it at the Good Samaritan Clinic or at various health fairs, he said.
“These students love this community,” Parker said.
And they are contributing to the community. Along with the schools, ACHE broke ground Aug. 28 on an $11 million, 6.6-acre development across ARCOM that will be home to Heritage Village, two residential/retail buildings that will serve as student housing on the top levels and businesses on the bottom levels.
ACHE is also putting in a $600,000 Celebration Garden and Wellness Park that will have pavilions, restrooms, an adult workout area and children’s playgrounds, Parker said.
He also noted that with the new construction and increased faculty and student base, the school will likely exceed the expected economic impact of $415 million over the next four years, which a report released in 2018 indicated.
About 67% of the students at ARCOM are from Arkansas or touch states. The remaining students come from throughout the United States. All students must be U.S. citizens, he said. Tuition is $43,000 a year, which makes ARCOM the seventh least expensive medical school in the country, he added.
“It’s not about the money,” Parker said. “It’s a mission.”